The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter at Cheltenham Everyman, February 17-20

The Birthday Party, by Harold Pinter

The Birthday Party, by Harold Pinter - Credit: Archant

So is The Birthday Party a play that delivers the gift you’ve always wanted? Or just another pair of M&S socks, wonders Katie Jarvis

I know I’m not here to decide whether or not The Birthday Party itself is a triumph or a turkey (a brilliant political, shifting-sands plea for individual autonomy; or an ‘insane, pointless play’, as one reviewer initially described it.) (And, to be honest, it’s not hard to see what he was driving at.)

That assessment was made long ago, when the play first opened back in 1958; when Pinter was a mere 27 years old.

But here’s my latest confession (which shows what a rubbish drama critic you’ve gone and got yourselves). (Look – if you paid a bit more, you’d do better.) Last night, in Cheltenham, was the first time I’d ever seen it performed.

There’s a certain joy in coming to a classic with a relatively untainted, open mind… (Imagine reading Shakespeare for the first time, without anyone having told you you’ve got to consider it amazing. What would we think? How would we react?)

So this is how The Birthday Party goes. The simple (ish) version is that Stanley (Gareth Bennett-Ryan), who lodges at a seaside boarding house, is having a birthday. His landlady, Meg (Cheryl Kennedy), has got him a present – a children’s drum to hang around his neck and beat, in lieu of the piano he once played. Meg’s husband, Petey (Ged McKenna) isn’t much interested in anything except his paper and his chess club night out. While visitor Lulu (Imogen Wilde) just wishes that Stanley would smarten up and have a shave.

But when two strangers show up, looking for lodgings for the night – Goldberg (Jonathan Ashley) and McCann (Declan Rodgers) – they insist on throwing a party.

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Now that really is the simple version…

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Oh, my gosh. I loved The Birthday Party. I loved this production of The Birthday Party. This twisty, turny, mind-bendy play where the dialogue seems to be in a completely different drama from the action. Where some of the cast seem to think they’re in a sitcom and others twig that they’re in an Orwellian nightmare.

We start with the sitcom, as Meg and Petey converse over breakfast.

“Someone’s just had a baby.”

“Oh, they haven’t!”

“It’s a girl.”

“Not a boy?”

Absurd, yes, to question these banal statements… And yet, it begins to dawn on the audience that this really is a play where you can’t take even banalities at face value. Petey enjoys his bowl of cornflakes; Stanley says the milk is so sour, he can’t eat them.

Meg enjoys a playful scene with Stanley; Stanley views the same scene with the barely-contained violence of a lion waiting to maul its victim to death.

Are the two strangers who pitch up for a room for the night unknown to Stanley? Or does he know exactly who they are, and suspect a sinister intent?

All I can say – without giving too much away to those few who, like me, are unfamiliar with this play – is that it’s like sitting on a quiet bus and suddenly getting punched in the face by a stranger. Like stroking a fluffy dog that suddenly bites. Like watching a play you didn’t know and suddenly realising you’re seeing an unsettling, troubling work of genius unfold before you. Genius that intrigues and entertains as surely as it puzzles. With a cast that’s masterful and fully in control of dialogue and action that career and spin and skid.

Fluttering Meg; steady Petey; vicious Goldberg, et al.

I can’t recommend this production highly enough. Go and see it. Mess with your mind.

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• The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573; www.everymantheatre.org.uk

• The Birthday Party is touring until June 18. For a full list of dates visit http://www.londonclassictheatre.co.uk/index.php/2016/01/the-birthday-party/

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